President Obama often rails against “perpetual campaigns” in politics, but the White House is increasingly waging a partisan-edged campaign funded by taxpayers through a flood of daily emails to the public in support of his agenda.
Whether the topic is gun control or immigration reform, the White House is using taxpayer dollars for staff and equipment to promote Mr. Obama’s image and frequently to target his opponents in Congress for scorn through a series of e-newsletters.
“The president thinks Washington has largely taken its eye off the ball on the most important issue facing the country,” senior presidential adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in one such email last month. “Instead of talking about how to help the middle class, too many in Congress are trying to score political points, refight old battles, and trump up phony scandals.”
Those irresponsible people in Congress are Republicans, of course, and the “phony” scandals involve the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups and the House’s probe of the lethal terrorist attack at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.
In April, after gun control legislation failed to pass in the Senate, the White House sent supporters a mass email titled “Shameful.”
“A minority of senators blocked legislation that would have made America safer and better protected our kids,” said the message, which included a video and transcript of Mr. Obama lambasting the gun rights lobby and its allies in the Senate, mostly Republicans.
Some government watchdogs say the White House, by using federal employees and equipment to produce this partisan-themed campaign, is testing ethical boundaries.
“They do excessively refer to the president, so as to cross a reasonable content standard for franked mail,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist of Public Citizen. “When government-paid emails and franked mail are allowed, such as during a non-election season, the content of the messages should still be made nonpartisan and avoid excessive references to the government official.”
Franked mail, which is paid by the government, involves mailings of more than 500 missives from an elected official to constituents. Lawmakers often use it to boost their image.
Regulations set by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards bar lawmakers from unsolicited mass mailings, either email or “snail mail,” that criticize policy or legislation in a “partisan, politicized or personalized” manner.
“No grass-roots lobbying or soliciting support for a member’s position on a legislative, public policy, or community issue,” the rules state. “Members cannot generate or circulate a petition under the frank.”
The mass mailings may not go out within 90 days of a primary or general election. But those rules don’t cover the executive branch, and the White House emails such as the Daily Snapshot are not “unsolicited.” Recipients subscribe to them simply by signing up on the White House website.
Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said it’s questionable whether some of the White House emails would be permitted if congressional franking rules applied to them.
“At the very least, it would arouse criticism from political opponents of a lawmaker, and perhaps a complaint from a political challenger,” Mr. Sepp said.
As far as policing the content of White House emails, however, Mr. Sepp said there may be “practical and political problems with making sure taxpayers are getting value from a robust debate between the branches of government rather than being forced to shell out for propaganda.”
“After all, Congress polices itself through the Franking Commission, which is not perfect, but who would police the White House? The Department of Justice?” Mr. Sepp asked.
The White House wouldn’t answer questions about how much it spends on staff time or other expenses to produce the e-newsletters or maintain its mailing list, although emails typically are much lower in cost than the postage and paper for “snail mail.”
The number of people receiving these emails isn’t known, but it’s likely in the millions. The White House’s official Twitter account has more than 4 million followers, and the spinoff group from Mr. Obama’s 2012 campaign, Organizing for Action, has a list of supporters’ email addresses that is said to number more than 12 million.
Some specialists on campaign finance law and ethics in government don’t see anything wrong with the White House’s high-tech effort. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, reviewed several emails from 2013 at the request of The Washington Times and gave the opinion that they pass ethical muster.
“There’s nothing in them that asks for money,” Ms. McGehee said. “They don’t look connected to his re-election. Third, are they about policy? Yes, they are. Now, they’re the president’s policies. But in my view, that’s a legitimate use of the communications office to promote the policies that the president is trying to implement.”
Federal employees are governed by the Hatch Act, which limits their political activities, such as actively supporting or opposing a political party or a candidate for partisan political office.
Examples of political activity that would violate the Hatch Act while on duty or using government property are sending email invitations to campaign events or using a government agency’s Internet connections to forward email messages received from a partisan campaign or someone supporting a partisan candidate.
Making greater use of online technology to promote the president’s agenda isn’t surprising to many observers, who note that Mr. Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were famous for introducing social media and data-mining to modern elections.
“Technologically speaking, they’re head and shoulders above any other operation,” Ms. McGehee said. “It’s how they won re-election. Presidents have always had their political operative in place. The groundbreaking change here is technology has enabled any politician or any president to both outsource some of that and to do it on a scale that was unheard-of.”
Said Mr. Sepp, “The president’s communications team seems to have elevated the bully pulpit to a new, technologically advanced level.”
Ms. McGehee said the administration’s use of enhanced technology poses risks in crossing ethical boundaries, especially with Organizing for Action, which is busy this summer holding events to promote the president’s agenda. She said she believes Organizing for Action “has crossed the line many times.”
“It’s a very disturbing development,” she said. “It’s run by his operatives, they’re sending administration officials to raise money and appear at events. I think it’s very troubling.”